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Convalesce: A Fading Word in Need of Its Own Strength

Convalesce is a rare English wordÔøΩ one that was intended for everyday conversation but found its use limited to the medical industry. You may be more familiar with other forms of the word (i.e. convalescence or convalescent). But regardless of the form, the word was almost always exclusively tied to physical health.

Merriam-Webster defines convalesce as an intransitive verb: to recover health and strength gradually after sickness or weakness. One convalesces from the flu or broken bones. The word first appeared in the late 15th century. It was derived from the Latin word, convalescere, which also meant "to regain health". More specifically, valescere, as a standalone word, meant "to begin to grow strong". Convalesce was only common in Scottish and Caxton writing until the 19th century.

In the mid-19th century, doctors throughout London began to focus on outpatient recovery. They found that many discharged patients had difficulty nursing themselves back to health. In response, they established convalescent homes, which were hospital annexes in which patients could recover under medical supervision.

Convalescent homes quickly grew in popularity but not without controversy. Public advocates were concerned these homes offered too much of a contrast to the patients' normal living conditions. Many of these patients were working-class citizens that lived in rough circumstances, and advocates worried the convalescent homes might rub their misfortune in their faces. Still, the homes multiplied in number, and many other countries (the U.S. included) adopted the practice.

Convalesce isn't as common in modern English. A Google search for the word returns results for nursing homes, which aren't quite the same thing. And, there are some health articles and studies that use the word.

But, despite its appearance in those health articles, convalesce is less commonly used in today's health industry. Convalescent homes still exist, but now they're called Inpatient Rehabilitation Facilities (IRFs). IRFs are a bit more involved than convalescent homes. Here, patients take part in intensive recovery sessions that last upwards of 3 hours per day. They've come a long way from the early days, when the homes served as little more than medically supervised hotels.

Like so many other English words (i.e. supersede, nonplussed, etc.), convalesce is fading from everyday usage. But despite the fact that IRFs have replaced convalescent homes, there's still hope that the word itself won't be replaced. That hope lies in sports journalism.

Several recent articles use the term in relation to injuries. ESPN's Eddie Matz laments about Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer needing more time to convalesce, a move that puts the team's season at risk. The Washington Post's Marissa Payne used the word to describe Olympian Annemiek van Vlueten's recovery after a brutal bike crash at the Rio games. And, Mike Berardino, of the Twin Cities Pioneer Press, used it to detail Twins third baseman Miguel Sano's slow recovery from a shin injury.

Thanks to a few sports journalists looking to add some flair to their writing, it seems convalesce might have a resilient recovery of its own.

Enjoy this post?
Read some of our other etymological posts:
Supersede
Nonplussed
Berserk